Writing Local A.A. History

Stories as the Vessels of Wisdom and Grace

Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana)

A talk given by Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana) at the History & Archives Gathering at Lebanon, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, June 24, 2006. Other participants and A.A. historians present included Jared L. who organized and chaired the conference, Mitchell K. (Washingtonville, New York) who spoke on Clarence Snyder and the steps, Chet H. (Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, an oldtimer who got sober April 4, 1949), Shakey Mike G. and B.J. (who told how Fitz Mayo and Jim Burwell got the first AA groups started in eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland), Barefoot Bill L., and Al W. (who maintains the well known West Baltimore AA history website).

Barefoot Bill L. at barefootbill@optonline.net recorded all of the talks except for Chet H.'s, and has them available for anyone who would like copies, five CD disks for $34 plus $4 for shipping, CD's only (he doesn't make tape cassettes anymore):
Disk 1:  Intro. by Jared L. and "Doing the Steps with Clarence S." by Mitchell K.
Disk 2:  "Writing AA History" by Glenn C.
Disk 3:  "Proposed AA History 1955 to 2000" panel discussion and "Problems Writing AA History" panel discussion.
Disk 4:  Panel on "Fitz M. & Jimmy B."
Disk 5:  Panel on "The Founders in Eastern Pennsylvania"

In 2003, we were celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of A.A. in South Bend, Indiana. The chairman of the intergroup found out that I was a historian, and asked me to write up a short account of those early years. Then he handed me an eight page handwritten list prepared by an old timer named Nick Kowalski, an ex-con, now dead, giving dozens of first names and last initials, and a few sketchy comments about events that had occurred.

My first reaction was to feel overwhelmed and dismayed. How was I going to find out who these people had actually been and enough details about what had happened to be able to tell their story? Real history has to tell stories.

History tells a story

In fact, the English word "history" and the English word "story" both come from the same Greek word, historia. Real history always has to tell a story: his-story, her-story, their-story, when they are all put together, becomes hist-ory.

The first thing therefore which has to be said to someone who wants to write a local A.A. history, is that a list of names and dates, and which A.A. groups were founded when, is not history. You have to tell a story, and you have to find out enough about the founding figures to make them come alive as real human beings.

The best way to do that is to find a surviving old timer who knows how to tell a good story. My first break-through there came when I got an opportunity to meet one of the real old timers, Jimmy Miller, who had been one of the first two black people to come into our local A.A. program back in the 1940's. I got to spend a whole afternoon in Jimmy's home, listening to her talk about the early days, and I walked out thanking God for having given me the gift of being able to sit at the feet of such a great lady and hear the extraordinary wisdom which she had to impart.

My story is my message

My story is my message, and the best stories are conveyors of wisdom and grace. From that point on, after meeting Jimmy Miller and hearing her story, whenever I was tempted to feel sorry for myself because I didn't like the people at this meeting, or it was so difficult getting to that meeting, I would say to myself, "Don't you dare complain about any problem you have with the people in some of the A.A. meetings."

Because, you see, when Jimmy first came into the program in 1948, out of all the house meetings in that part of northern Indiana, she told me that there were only three that would allow her to attend at all, simply because she was black. And they would make her sit out in kitchen, where she could listen but not participate, and gave her coffee out of a coffee cup that was chipped or cracked. When they finally allowed her to go to her first open meetings, and she would attempt to go up and shake hands with the speaker after the meeting, the speaker would turn his back on her and refuse to shake her hand and rudely walk away.

After hearing Jimmy's story, I had to start saying to myself, "Don't you dare complain about any kind of treatment you get from any person in the A.A. program -- or the A.A.HistoryLovers or any other group -- Jimmy Miller showed you that if you want to get sober, if you want to grow in wisdom and in grace, you will do whatever you have to do, no matter how difficult or humiliating you may feel it to be. You must be willing to do anything, anything at all, in order to get sober -- and do it thanking God for having given you that single tiny doorway into the kingdom.

My story is my message. The only way I can serve as a channel of grace to you or anyone else is to tell my story. The only way Jimmy could serve as a channel of grace for me was to tell me her story. You cannot separate the true import of the message from the story in which it is embedded.

Historical detective work

I discovered that the founders of A.A. in our area were a well-to-do factory owner named Ken Merrill and "a boy named Sue" -- a man whose first name was apparently Sue, and whose last name was initially given to me incorrectly. Remember, not everything the old timers tell you is true! But it turned out that the second man's name was Joseph Soulard Cates, and his nickname really was "Soo," short for Soulard.

Real historians have to be detectives. I had read enough detective novels, for example, to know something about how real private detectives work when they are trying to track down a missing person. I started going through the South Bend telephone book, systematically calling everyone whose last name was Merrill, and using the same cover story: "I'm doing genealogical work and trying to find any surviving relatives of a wealthy South Bend factory owner named Ken Merrill." Over and over, the person answering the phone would laugh and say something to the effect of, "well, if he was wealthy, it sure wasn't anybody in our family."

But finally I reached an elderly woman who paused for along time after I asked her my question, and then said: "That's peculiar. In fact we aren't related to those Merrill's even though our name is Merrill. But we went to the same church they attended, St. James Episcopal. And I know that one of their children, a son, is still living, and teaches philosophy at Oberlin College." That was the lead I needed.

Ken Merrill, it turned out, was a very talented man who had written short stories and articles for major national magazines as a hobby on the side, and his son and daughter gave me a whole stack of photocopies of things their father had written, plus a reasonably long account of his life written by one of their uncles. The articles frequently contained autobiographical material, and even the short stories sometimes contained stories of people and events that were fictional, but that also gave revealing glimpses into Ken's own life experiences. The man came totally alive, as a very complex and impressive character: someone for whom you could only feel enormous sympathy and enormous respect as a caring human being who had had to fight and overcome an abusive childhood family and what were sometimes almost crippling phobias.

My story is my message. The only way I can serve as a channel of grace to you or anyone else is to tell my story. You cannot separate the true import of the message from the story in which it is embedded. That was true with Ken Merrill's story too. Ken Merrill's story was an intrinsic part of his message.

Now in terms of its personal impact on me, being drawn into the stories of Jimmy Miller's life and Ken Merrill's life was an incredible learning experience about the program and about recovery. I had assumed, when I agreed to take on this project, that it would be a fairly mechanical bit of service work. I was discovering that it was in fact a personal spiritual journey into a world where I was getting to meet and sit at the feet of some incredibly wise spiritual teachers.

Tape recorded leads

I next went nosing around, trying to find out if any of these local old timers had ever given leads that had been tape recorded. Of the seven old timers whose stories I used as the backbone of my account of early A.A. in the South Bend area, I had been able to interview one personally (Jimmy Miller), and a second person (Ken Merrill) had written so much that I was able to use his short stories and articles to get a glimpse into his inner character. But with the other five, I had to use tape recorded leads to get the kind of stories from their lives which I needed to make them come alive as persons.

Stories in A.A. and the Oxford Group

My story is my message. I cannot separate the message of grace from the stories in which it is embedded. The fuller the story, the more that person comes alive as a living, feeling human being, and the stronger the message comes through. These tape recorded leads let me turn these other five major figures into real people to whom one could relate on a personal basis.

The job was only supposed to take me three months. In fact it took me three years to finish. I ended up in 1996 with two books, one called The Factory Owner & the Convict, and the other called The St. Louis Gambler & the Railroad Man. On the title page of that first edition, I put "My story is my message" as a subtitle, because this was the most important thing I had learned in carrying out this project in local history.

It is not just local history which that principle applies to. The first part of the Big Book is Bill Wilson's story, and at the end we have a large collection of further stories. The second most important work in early A.A. was Richmond Walker's Twenty-four Hours a Day. A large part of the material in the large print sections up at the top of each page is autobiographical. That is an important part of what gives the little black book such power: the author's own story gives his words the power of real truth.

The early A.A. people learned this technique from the Oxford Group. A. J. Russell's For Sinners Only is simply his own story, Russell's story of how he discovered the Oxford Group. V. C. Kitchen's I Was a Pagan is likewise simply the story of how he discovered the Oxford Group.

A. J. Russell says that the way the Oxford Group read the New Testament was, not as a collection of doctrines and dogmas and legalistic rules, but as the story of the lives of Jesus and his first century followers. The Oxford Group saw itself as simply a group of people who were attempting to live the way they had seen those first century Christians living.

Stories and implicit value systems

How is the message actually incorporated into the story? Every time we tell a story or write a history, there will be heroes and villains. There will be people whom we portray as people to respect, and there will be people whom we portray as people who failed -- people who never got the message, or acted stupidly (in our eyes), or betrayed themselves and fell into unworthy behavior.

But the heroes and the villains will always be there under one guise or another, the people whom I as the story-teller regard as successes and those whom I regard as failures. Otherwise there will be no plot to the story, no context of meaning provided for the storyline. And this in turn means that all good stories and good histories will contain an implicit set of values and principles for living what the author regards as the good life.

Character change: learning to
retell the story of my life

That is one of the major ways in which my story becomes my message: my story teaches you what my real values are, and shows you what the things are which I regard as truly important.

When we first come dragging into A.A. meetings, we try to tell people the story of our lives, and the tale we tell is full of self-pity and wrath and despair. What kind of values come out in the story I am telling as a raw newcomer? It is obvious that my own ego is the most important thing in my story at this point, the supreme value. My story when I am still a drunk revolves around what I want and the way I think the world should behave. Successfully making other people behave the way I want them to behave is a major value for most practicing alcoholics. If I could achieve total control of everyone else around me, I would achieve one of my most important values. For most drunks, having other people praise me, or at least approve of me, is another value which I have been seeking.

Until I learn to retell the story of my life, built around a different set of inner values, I will not be able to stop drinking and drugging, and I will achieve no real serenity and happiness in my life.

My old alcoholic values have to be collapsed and destroyed or I will never get anywhere. This is the work of the first and fourth steps: to rip apart my old alcoholic standards and values, and get me to see that a life built upon that kind of basis is a path leading to doom. We have to be left naked, with no confidence anymore that we have the slightest idea what is right and what is wrong, and what is good and what is bad.

Alcoholism is a disease of perception

Sgt. Bill S. was one of Marty Mann's proteges, and a good friend of Searcy's, back in the 1940's and 50's. Sgt. Bill taught that alcoholism is a disease of perception, in which the mental framework which my mind uses to organize its world is so skewed and distorted, that its standards and values are all wrong. I see my worst enemies as my best friends, and regard those who are trying to save me as my worst enemies. I seek worldly glory, blind egotism, revenge, money, power, and proving how tough and totally self-subsistent I am. My values are all distorted and destructive.

Metanoesis:  reframing the cognitive
framework of my mind

I have to undergo a metanoesis (conversion, act of repentance, psychic change). My old character has to be totally torn down and destroyed, before a good character, with a healthy set of positive values, can be constructed. My old mental framework has to be collapsed before I can start the process of reframing my cognitive processes.

But after we have had our old characters torn down, we need to be provided with a new set of role models, people whose lives are imbued with positive values like real courage, compassion for others, willingness to do whatever it takes to be responsible for ourselves and our own decisions, faith in a loving and forgiving God, and all the other good character traits that will enable us to lieben und arbeiten, to love and work productively.

As part of the process of building new and better characters, we learn how to tell the story of our lives in a different kind of way. Things still go wrong in our lives, in the same way that they did when we were still drinking, and if we were telling the story in our old alcoholic way, we would be seething in self-pity and portraying ourselves as the helpless victims of cruel and wicked people and a malicious or totally indifferent God. But now we learn how to tell this story in a new and different way, as a story of triumph over adversity with the aid of the courage and strength placed in our souls by the grace of a loving God who cares about us. Instead of reciting lists of situations in which I beat other people and won all the praise and glory, I now tell a story in which my greatest triumphs were opportunities to help other people.

And in the process, I learn how to change the story of my life so that it will have a happy ending instead of an unhappy ending -- not my changing external circumstances nearly so much as by changing my own ideas about what is truly good and important.

That was what the Oxford Group meant by producing changed lives. By using the power of grace to actually change human character, I can change the way the story of my life is going to end.

Also, by telling the story of my life in this new and different way, I not only give glory and thanks to God, but also provide a role model for newcomers. I tell you what it used to be like, what happened, and what it is like now. And in the process, I show the newcomers where they will end up if they try to keep living by their old standards and values, while also showing them how a new and different kind of goals and ideals can give me a life in which I am truly happy, joyous, and free.

Abstract lists of virtues and vices

Now we could give the newcomers long, abstract lists of values which they ought to incorporate into their lives. In the fashion of the Oxford Group, we could tell them to pursue Absolute Honesty, Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Purity, and Absolute Love. Or we could use the list in The Little Red Book and tell them to pursue the values of Humility, Honesty, Faith, Courage, Service, and Gratitude (or Appreciation).

Giving lists of virtues like this can be useful, on occasion, in order to help point newcomers in the right general direction. But we would never be able to truly transform people's lives by simply preaching at them and haranguing them with long lists of abstract virtues, no matter how well-selected. An abstract virtue is a pale thing, with no real life or transforming power. By themselves, reciting lists of abstract virtues is simply another way of talking, talking, talking, without ever doing anything to actually heal our lives.

There is no abstract grace

If you try to separate the message from the personal story, it will lose all its ability to transform other people's lives. The message must in every case be presented in the voice of this man or that woman, in a concrete setting. Or we're just engaged in empty talking.

There is no abstract grace. We can receive no saving grace from analyzing an abstract theological doctrine or psychological theory. Grace always comes to us in concrete fashion, quite frequently through another living human being at a specific time and a specific place.

Abstract lists do no one any good at all, whether they are mechanical lists of names and dates, or lists of abstract virtues and vices, or long lists of hundreds of rules about how to run A.A. meetings and exactly the right way to say this or that in an A.A. meeting.

The authoritarian, legalistic mentality

I am appalled by a few of the people who belong to the A.A.HistoryLovers, who fuss over lists of conference decisions and try to devise endless rules for how we should say this or that in an A.A. meeting. These are people with a blind authoritarian mentality, who believe that if they can make the authority figures draw up a long enough list of rules, which they can follow precisely and mechanically and unfailingly, that they will somehow magically be able to stay clean and sober and become happy, joyous, and free. How can you get anybody to stop drinking or using just by getting them to follow a bunch of mechanical rules, no matter how well-intentioned?

My story is my message, not me egotistically trying to control other people by giving them lists of mechanical rules which I tell them must be obeyed. Do we really want to pattern ourselves after the Gestapo? "Here are my rules, you will obey."

Ontology and story telling

There are deep philosophical implications to this view of story-telling. As a human being, I am Dasein -- being here and now -- and this is the locus of my true existence. The cognitive framework of my mind here in the Now is ontologically constitutive of the world in which I live. No beings can appear in my conscious mental world which do not fit into my mind's cognitive framework, and all the beings which exist in the world around me are shaped by that cognitive framework.

Remember the importance of New Thought to early A.A. Emmet Fox was one example, but James Allen's As a Man Thinketh is even more tightly on target. The way I think about the world is the way my world will become. If I think about the world as an uncaring, dog-eat-dog place, full of meaningless tragedy and suffering, that is the way my world is going to become. If I think about the world as presided over by a loving, caring God who will come to my aid and fill my world with happiness, joy, and freedom, that is the way my world is going to become. If I think about the world as a place where all the other people around me are threatening, grabbing, selfish, and dangerous, where I must strike them first before they strike me down, then this is the way my world is going to become. If I think about the world as filled with a lot of pretty good people, who will continually surprise me with their kindness, helpfulness, and friendliness, then this is the way my world is going to become.

The cognitive framework of my mind -- including all my ideals and values -- will necessarily provide the ontological framework in which Being can appear. And it is in the story I tell about my life -- not some list of abstract virtues and vices, which are secondary constructs of my mind -- that this ontological framework will have its ontological base.

Epistemology and
learning a language

That is my first philosophical observation, drawn heavily from the existentialists Martin Heidegger and Paul Tillich, and the modern cognitive therapists. The topic there was ontology. My second philosophical observation is drawn from the writings of the later Wittgenstein. The topic here will be epistemology.

How do we learn the meanings of words? Let us suppose that I find myself on an island where I do not know one single word of the language spoken, and the inhabitants of that island do not understand one single word of my language. I point at a pencil lying on a table with an inquiring look on my face. A member of the tribe says, "ooga booga."

Does that mean that ooga booga is their word for pencil? Not necessarily at all. It could be their word for "yellow" (because it is a yellow pencil) or "long, thin object" or "object lying on top of another object." Perhaps the native speaker misunderstands my question, and thinks that I am pointing at the table instead of the pencil, and ooga booga is their word for table. Perhaps he has an even greater misunderstanding of my question, and thinks that I am asking, "So when are we going to eat," and ooga booga means "later."

It will take me many days to check out all the possibilities, by means of constant interaction with the members of that tribe. I will try using the new words they are attempting to teach me, and when I am successful, they will look pleased. And in turn, I will try to follow their verbal instructions, and when I in fact do what they are telling me to do, they will look pleased. But it will take a long time, and a lot of trial and error, in a real life context, in order for me to master that new language.

When people first come into the A.A. program, they have to learn a strange new language. Whether they realize it or not, they will in fact have no knowledge of the real meaning of words like grace, faith, love, egotism, and resentment. And for that reason, they will have no real understanding of what the word God means. One of the best ways I can learn what these strange new words mean is to listen to dozens of A.A. people telling me the story of their lives.

The Hindsfoot Foundation

That's enough about ontology and epistemology. Let's go back to the story I have been telling. In September 1996, I finished The Factory Owner & the Convict, and three of us Indiana A.A. folks pooled our money and published a couple of hundred copies, and distributed them at the annual regional conference that year. We quickly ran out and had to print more. People were hungry for this knowledge. They wanted to know their own history. And it made me feel good to have done something for other people. All the work had been more than worth it, I realized, just to see the pleasure other people were getting.

This was the beginning of the Hindsfoot Foundation. The name came from a passage in the book of Habbakuk: "The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds' feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places." The image is that of a little deer leaping merrily about the rocky crags of a mountain peak where the sunlight of the spirit perpetually shines, not performing to win the applause of the crowd (for only the few who are willing to climb so high will ever have the opportunity to stand in awe at the sight of of its grace and acrobatic skill), but jumping from pinnacle to pinnacle out of a sheer delight in life itself amidst the beauty and goodness of God's world.

Just like a large number of the people who have written books about twelve step spirituality and A.A. history, we found that a small group of us needed to band together to self-publish the books. Retired nuclear submarine commander Bill Correll and newspaperman Brooklyn Bob Firth (two of the founders of Life Treatment Center in South Bend, Indiana) were key members of the group, along with archivist Frank Nyikos (Lake Papakeetchie, Indiana) and Glenn Chesnut (Professor of History at Indiana University in South Bend). Glenn's wife Sue (who at that time ran the city of South Bend's small business incubator on Sample Street) gave advice from time to time. Newspaper columnist John Stark (Fort Wayne, Indiana) joined the group several years later and has become a key member.

Originally intended to publish books about and by Indiana A.A. and Al-Anon people, when Neil S. (Fishers, Indiana) asked us to help Sgt. Bill S. in Sonoma, California, write his book on the early A.A. psychological interpretations of alcoholism, and Nancy Olson simultaneously contacted us from Kingston, Pennsylvania, and asked us to edit and publish her book on the passing of the Hughes Act, the Hindsfoot Foundation expanded its mission to the national level:  to help make sure that good books about A.A. and the twelve step program would have a place to be published, even if they were not attractive to the profit-making commercial publishers.

The first edition of the Big Book was self-published by the first A.A. people. Richmond Walker and the members of the A.A. group in Daytona Beach, Florida, published the early printings of Twenty-four Hours a Day with money from their own pockets on the little printing press in the county courthouse. Ed Webster and Barry Collins pooled their money, called themselves the Coll-Webb Publishing Co., and printed The Little Red Book until Ed Webster's death. Father Ralph Pfau and the three nuns who served as his assistants at the Convent of the Good Shepherd in Indianapolis took care of publishing the Golden Books. Mitchell K. and a group of other concerned A.A. people published How It Worked themselves.

That's the way we usually do these things in A.A.. We don't ask for free handouts and charity. We know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. We try our best to keep from getting involved in things that are basically commercial profit-making operations. And we don't just sit on our hands and expect the people in the New York GSO to wait on us hand and foot, and do everything for us, while we sit around and pontificate and complain.

And the New York GSO and A.A. World Services are not organized as an institutional publishing agency in the way that the Methodist Church has Abingdon Press and the Lutheran Church has Fortress Press. We would seriously distort A.A. if we tried to turn A.A. World Services into something like the Christian denominational presses.

So most of the time we still have to form little groups of interested A.A. people and publish our own books on A.A. history and spirituality, with freely donated time and money from our own pockets. The world doesn't owe me charity just because I'm so cute and have such a endearing smile!

The A.A. Heritage Movement and the
preservation of A.A.'s Historic Heritage

Some members of the Area 22 Northern Indiana Archives Committee were there at that local conference in 1996 where the first edition of The Factory Owner & the Convict was unveiled, and the next thing you know, one of them had approached me and asked me if I would do the same thing for the whole state of Indiana. Then they tossed me in a car, and off we went to Akron, to the Second National Archives Workshop: Frank N. from Syracuse, Floyd P. from Frankton, Klaus K. from Fort Wayne, Big Al Miller (now deceased) from Milford, and myself. My wife said that the carload of us was like the Three Stooges, only there were five of us, which made it even more chaotic!

Gail LaC. in Akron had come up with the idea for the first Akron workshop only the year before. What Gail discovered was that there had been a silent grassroots movement spreading all over the United States and Canada (and extending to the British Isles as well) in which A.A. people had come to the realization that we have to preserve our history, we have to preserve our Historic Heritage, for this is the living heart of A.A..

What shall we call this? The Archival Movement? Maybe the A.A. Heritage Movement would be an even better term. But it was something which began to appear in marked fashion in A.A. in the period between 1990 and 2000. It is the single most significant thing that has happened in A.A. in our generation.

When Nancy Olson started the first version of the A.A.HistoryLovers web group in 2000, what happened was very similar to what happened to Gail LaC. in Akron. People not just in the United States and Canada, but all over the world began joining the A.A.HistoryLovers, to Nancy's great surprise. Once again it became clear that there was an enormous, hitherto silent grassroots movement within A.A. where A.A. people were thirsting for good solid historical material about their fellowship.

Gail LaC. and the Akron Archives Workshops, Nancy Olson and the AAHistoryLovers, and the formation of the Hindsfoot Foundation were all small individual symbols of this movement which began to affect A.A. all over the world during the 1990's.

The history of A.A. in Indiana

When we produced that book, The Factory Owner & the Convict, telling about how A.A. got started in South Bend and the surrounding area, I did the writing, but I was dependent on a number of other people for collecting a good deal of the information.

Once I took on the task of trying to first accurately researched written account of the way A.A. got started all over the state of Indiana, it quickly became clear that I could not even do all the writing. It was too big a job for any one person to do singlehandedly.

I finally put up a section on the Hindsfoot website where I have been collecting and posting all the accounts that Indiana A.A. researchers have been producing, about how A.A. got started in their local area, in all the various parts of the state of Indiana. We've got a pretty large collection of material now. It's not complete, but anybody who reads through it can get a good basic look at how A.A. was introduced and spread across the state of Indiana, and who some of the great spiritual leaders were.

The National Archives Workshops
in Indiana and Florida

I was privileged to be on the planning committee for the National Archives Workshop the year the workshop met in Clarksville, Indiana, across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. Now what counts as local history is a relative matter. For A.A. people in Indiana, Ralph Pfau (the Indianapolis priest who wrote the Golden Books under the pen name of Father John Doe) is part of local Indiana history. So I did a long talk on Father Ralph's life and his contributions to A.A..

A year or so later, the National Archives Workshop was held in Florida, and they asked me to do a similar talk on Richmond Walker and the Twenty-four Hours a Day meditational book. If you are an A.A. member in Florida (or in Boston), Richmond Walker is part of your local A.A. history.

National A.A. history

If you live in Minnesota, Ed Webster and The Little Red Book are part of your local A.A. history.

The four most published A.A. authors are Bill Wilson, Richmond Walker, Ralph Pfau, and Ed Webster. But the so-called histories of A.A. in the United States which we have seen so far, are written for the most part as though there were only one A.A. author who ever wrote about the program or had any influence on the way A.A. people thought and worked their programs.

The manuscript of Bob Pearson's history of A.A. is 600 pages long, but never mentions Father Ralph Pfau or the Golden Books at all. There was one period in which Bill Wilson regarded Father Ralph as being as serious a threat as Clarence Snyder. Bob's history mentions Ed Webster's name once, but never says anything about him writing The Little Red Book, which Dr. Bob helped write and clearly regarded as one of the best books on A.A. ever written. Richmond Walker's name is never mentioned at all, and Bob's one reference to Twenty-Four Hours a Day -- the second most important book in early A.A. history -- writes it off condescendingly as too "religious."

The story of Clarence Snyder in Cleveland gets only 600 words in that entire enormous book, mostly a negative put-down of Clarence, in spite of the fact that there was a period during which he was one of the major A.A. figures in the United States, a period during which the A.A. Orthodox Movement was a force to be contended with on the national level. Mitchell K. has done the work, but nobody writing national A.A. history seems to be taking advantage of his treasure house of early A.A. lore.

Merton M. is turning up fascinating material on early A.A. in New Jersey, which is changing our whole basic view of early A.A. in some areas. Any future history of A.A. from 1955 to 2000, if it is to be a respectable and competent history, will have to take into account both Mitchell K.'s work and Merton M.'s work. Otherwise, whatever is written will be just a joke.

As a professional historian, the way most histories of A.A. have been written is absurd. No professional historian would dare try to publish a book called The History of the United States, in which he or she talked only about events which took place in New York City, or authors who lived in that city. A professional historian who tried to do that would simply be laughed off the stage.

Can a history of A.A. from
1955 to 2000 be written today?

Can a history of A.A. from 1955 to 2000 be written today? I don't believe that it can. It's going to be a while longer before it will become possible. One person working singlehandedly cannot assemble all the information that would be needed to write such a history. Bob Pearson's history is the product of a massive amount of research, and ought to be made available as a resource for A.A. historians. But it is mostly institutional history.

Also, Bob gets the various local A.A. stories wrong in all too many places. His account of early Indiana A.A. history is hopelessly incorrect and garbled, for instance. That was mostly not Bob's fault. That was mainly the fault of his source, an Indiana writer named Dean Barnett who was a very confused and careless researcher.

Any historian trying to write something like Bob Pearson was attempting would of necessity be dependent on the work of hundreds of other historians. And at the point when he was trying to write his A.A. history, hardly any of those local histories had been written.

Good local A.A. histories however are beginning to appear now on the internet in ever larger numbers. Al W. has done some good work on early Baltimore A.A., and the Detroit A.A. intergroup has some good basic material up. Don B., a Past Delegate from Chicago, has an incredibly good collection of archival material on early Chicago A.A., which no one has fully written up yet. There are some real gold nuggets in Don's collection.

Perhaps as a Prolegomenon to writing a good history of A.A. from 1955 to 2000, we need to have a website where all the local histories can be collected in one place.

Jared asked me to talk this morning about my experiences in writing local A.A. history. After lunch, there is going to be a panel on writing a history of A.A. from 1955 to 2000. My talk this morning, and the panel right after lunch, are tightly connected. Before we can write a decent general history of A.A., we first have to do our homework by researching and writing all the most important local A.A. histories.

I would like to beg everyone here today, when you go back home, to carry the message that we need local A.A. history projects started all over the U.S. and Canada.

A.A. at the turning point

A.A. is at a major turning point right now. In the 1980's, we saw the rise of a new legalistic and authoritarian mentality in some A.A. circles. These people wanted to turn A.A. into a cult, with hundreds of mechanical rules about how you had to run A.A. meetings and the precise words you had to use for dozens of rote phrases. They wanted to turn the meeting of the Delegates in New York into a censorship body which would tell all the A.A. members in the world what books they could and could not read in their meetings.

Then in the 1990's, we saw as a counter movement the rise of an Archival Movement or A.A. Heritage Movement -- whatever you want to call it -- which realized that the true heart of A.A. lay not in hundreds of mechanical rules, but in the living experience of the A.A. old timers who created our Historic Heritage. Preserving and passing on our Historic Heritage is our best defense against the authoritarian straitjacket of the legalists.

On June 17th, Ernie Kurtz, the author of Not-God, sent me an e-mail in which he said:

  I believe that the variety of A.A. meetings and approaches is one of the fellowship's great glories and a large aspect of its success .... If I had another book in me, it would be on The Varieties of the Alcoholics Anonymous Experience, with ... a profound bow to William James.  

What did William James teach us? That there is no one way of saving people's souls which will work for everybody, because people have different personalities and are caught in different kinds of life situations. A true study of our A.A. Historic Heritage shows us likewise that there is a wide variety of different ways of setting up A.A. meetings and teaching the program.

We also need to stop drawing up lists of hundreds of mechanical rules and conference decisions, and instead go back to the old principle of English Common Law, which says that the broad outlines of historical legal precedent are far more important than the precise wording of recent legislation and legal definitions. If we do that, we will be able to keep A.A. flexible and adaptive. Because early A.A. was above all flexible and adaptive and creative, and it did not tie men's and women's hands with narrow and restrictive regulations.

The Varieties of Early A.A. Experience would be an ideal title to give to a serious modern book on the history of A.A.. But however we title it, it must tell the stories of the good old timers. As Ernie Kurtz also said in that e-mail:

  I have learned over the years that A.A. seems to work by stories, and its own story is one of the greatest, and I continually marvel and am grateful that A.A.'s Higher Power ... chose me to help tell its story.  

We who are archivists and historians are the guardians of A.A.'s Historic Heritage. We must continue the work of telling the stories -- the concrete human stories -- which are the earthen vessels from which the treasures of the divine grace are poured out for all those who thirst for healing and redemption.


© Copyright 2005 by Glenn C.   From the Hindsfoot Foundation website at http://hindsfoot.org/   This material may be copied and reproduced by others subject to the restrictions given at http://hindsfoot.org/copyright.html

A.A.'s Historic Heritage

Glenn F. Chesnut, Changed by Grace:  V. C.
Kitchen, the Oxford Group, and A.A.
, note 69.

By the A.A. movement's Historic Heritage, I refer to four different sources of general principles or well-established precedents:

(1) Official publications and statements coming from Bill Wilson and the New York A.A. headquarters, such as the Big Book, the book called Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, some of the statements made in Bill W.’s letters or in official letters from the New York A.A. headquarters, and so on.

(2) Works written by early A.A. members like Richmond Walker, Ed Webster, Ralph Pfau, the authors of the Detroit/Washington D.C. pamphlet, and so on, which were widely used and appreciated by numerous early A.A. groups all over the U.S. and Canada. The messages of these books and pamphlets was given additional weight when their publication was originally sponsored by an A.A. group.

(3) Certain books and pamphlets by non-A.A. authors, such as Emmet Fox's Sermon on the Mount and The Upper Room, which were widely used and recommended reading among early A.A. groups all over the U.S. and Canada.

(4) We also have a number of what were originally oral traditions from the early A.A. period such as (to give one example) the account of how the words "as we understood Him" were inserted after the word "God" in the third and eleventh steps to allow people who did not wish to use the word God at all to be members of the fellowship, including even declared atheists, which is not immediately apparent from the wording of the Big Book itself.

(5) And finally we have widespread practices found in early A.A. all over the U.S. and Canada, along with accounts of the way in which certain early controversies were resolved (such as the gradual development of ground rules for the relationship between A.A. and Mrs. Marty Mann's National Committee for Education on Alcoholism), which established precedents for how various principles were to be interpreted in practice.

We need to remember that, just as in the English Common Law, well-established precedents in A.A. outweigh attempts at narrowly legalistic interpretations of written rules by later generations, even if the wording of the rules themselves was formulated during the early period, and that no A.A. governing body can rewrite well-established early A.A. precedents by a simple vote or the publication of some official declaration resulting from that vote.

The fundamental guidelines laid out in A.A.'s Historic Heritage could in principle be revised upon the receipt of permission (from each group in writing) of three quarters of the A.A. groups in the U.S. and Canada, together with all the other A.A. groups around the world which are officially associated in any fashion with U.S. and Canadian A.A. In reality, this means that (for all practical purposes) the twelve steps, the twelve traditions, and the other well-established guidelines from A.A.'s Historic Heritage cannot be changed.

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